The Greatest Athlete Who Ever Lived
"I'd do it all the same . . . except I'd go faster on a few jumps."
• Evel Knievel, (The Evel Knievel Museum)
I have a very distinct memory of the 70s and it is of Evel Knievel jumping over a series of cars, trucks or buses. It's an amalgam of a few episodes of ABC's Wide World of Sports, watched with my Father, in the basement of the house I grew up in. There's Evel being interviewed by Frank Gifford wearing that red, white and blue jumpsuit, becaped and holding a walking stick like it was a German field marshal's baton (Evel that is, the "Giffer" is wearing that garish ABC Sports blazer that could only be worn in the 70s). Evel would speak of his love of country, motorcycles, and himself. There was no apprehension in his voice or disposition . . . the man had no fear.
He would then mount his red, white and blue Harley-Davidson and ride back and forth in front of the soon to be (or not) jumped cars, trucks, or buses. It all occurred at some Midwest venue, like the Ottawa County Fairgrounds, or some other wholesome sounding all-American location. Evel would then pop a wheelie or two, before conducting a mock jump, stopping at the very edge of the ramp and overlooking the site of soon be glory or another broken bone(s). Then he'd back down the ramp, drive away from the camera, turn around and then after a moment of solitude (and I'm sure prayer) he would hit the throttle and . . .
So when I was visiting Topeka, KS I knew I had to attend the Evel Knievel Museum, before it moved to Las Vegas in the new year. I just had to go, as Evel was truly one of kind and I made a promise to myself many years ago never to visit Vegas again. Today when young folk speak of Tom Brady, LeBron James, or Shohei Ohtani, as the GOAT, I just smile and say to myself (or my long suffering wife), "they don't know what great is." When Messrs. Brady or James, or Ohtani-san left the locker room, they may have felt a little nervous, but I'm quite sure they did not fear for their life. Quite simply there is Evel Knievel and every other athlete who ever lived.
Evel used the same wood ramp for all his jumps. Maybe he felt is was a good luck charm, that he knew they could be trusted or "hey, what's the worst that can happen?" So when I realized that I could sit on a Harley that sat on the very same ramp Evel used to jump the Fountains at Caesar Palace, I knew what needed to done.
Even though it cost me an extra fiver (Evel would have been proud), the next thing I knew I was participating in a virtual experience that recreated a jump by one of his imitators. I must admit I was a little disappointed that I didn't get to wear a cape, carry a baton, or pop a wheelie, but hey, at least I was assured of survival.
As I contemplated my virtual jump of a rather unreasonable number of trucks and/or cars, I thought about how my right big toe was a little achy, my left knee clicked, a few other assorted aches and pains and how they all paled in comparison to Evel's 433 broken bones and I'm sure chronic whole body arthritis (there is a whole display referencing his medical history¹ and the "medicine" that was prescribed²). I thought to myself "We're all just a bunch of pussies . . . unworthy . . . as none of us could hold the bottle of Wild Turkey that Evel drank from before each jump!" Then I hit the throttle and . . .
To be honest though, the virtual ride was all a bunch of nonsense not worthy of the man or more importantly my money.
On the Ramp to Glory (Knievel on Left)
The balance of the museum was outstanding, chock a block full of Evel memorabilia, paraphernalia, motorcycles, medical charts, action figures, lunch boxes, and leather jumpsuits (literally). There is even a theater where you can watch trailers of the movie Viva Knievel³.
They launched The Greatest Athlete Who Ever Lived to immortality and then were just left in a field . . in Montana!
I have another 70s memory amalgam and it involves playing with my toy Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle with my friend Steve. We would build a ramp for Evel to jump matchbox cars, dirt holes, and Barbies. And if that wasn't enough for poor Evel, we would set it on fire. Those were the days - we didn't know how good we had it.
They even got the shag carpeting right!
The Skycycle X-2 that Evel Knievel used to almost traverse the Snake River on Aug 25, 1974
¹ Although complicated, the health insurance issues that this country faces today are not new, as even Evel found obtaining health insurance problematic back in the 70s. As did he did life, auto, dental, and possibly mortgage insurance.
³ Viva Knievel was a 1977 action film starring Lauren Hutton, Gene Kelly and Leslie Nielsen. While it cannot be documented, I'm quite sure Mr. Kelly agreed to co-star in this cinema masterpiece due to a large upfront payment.
⁴ Theodore Roosevelt was a Republican . . . Nobody ever heard of it until I came along.
"Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure... than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat."
• Theodore Roosevelt⁴ (10 April 1899)
Random Museum Attendee Just Showing Off